Tom Walkinshaw: Motor racing team owner who won the world title with Michael Schumacher and branched out into rugby union

Thursday 16 December 2010 01:00

A man who wore his passion for racing like a badge, Tom Walkinshaw courted both success and controversy, and inspired loyalty and dislike in equal measures. A market gardener's son from Penicuik, Midlothian, he caught the racing bug from a local garage owner. By 1969 he had won the Scottish Formula Ford 1600 championship and headed south to race in Formula 3 in 1970. After an abortive start with a Lotus 69 he joined the March "works" team, and went on to race in Formula 2 and Formula 5000.

Ford spotted his ability to develop race cars and in 1974 he won his class in the British Touring Car Championship (BTCC). That led to the foundation of Tom Walkinshaw Racing and in 1976 he scored his first major victory, sharing a BMW CSL with John Fitzpatrick at Silverstone. TWR prepared cars for the BMW County Challenge in 1979 and '80, and TWR Mazda RX7s won the British Touring Car Championship in 1980 and '81 with Win Percy, and in that latter season Walkinshaw shared victory in the Spa 24 Hours with Pierre Dieudonné.

TWR grew fast and acquired a string of garages across the UK as it developed touring cars for both Rover and Jaguar, and the Paris-Dakar-winning Range Rover for Rene Metge and Bernard Giroux. In 1982 it first raced Jaguars in the European Touring Car Championship (ETCC) and Rovers in the British series. There was much success but also controversy when the team ran afoul of the Shawcross Tribunal of Enquiry and was stripped of the 1983 BTCC title because of technical irregularities.

In 1984 Walkinshaw won the ETCC title in a Jaguar XJS, including victory in the Spa 24 Hours, and the success led to Jaguar commissioning TWR to build a sportscar for the Le Mans 24 Hours. That generated phenomenal success which embraced three World Sportscar Championships, wins at Le Mans in 1988 and '90.

Walkinshaw's businesses were founded upon his abilities as a driver and car sorter, and prospered because he knew how to spot good people and then let them do their jobs without excessive interference. That, allied to his passion and ebullient leadership, made TWR a phenomenal force.

"We had great respect and appreciation for Tom," the BBC F1 commentator Martin Brundle, a world champion in TWR Jaguars, said. "When you were in Tom's team, you really were in Tom's team. He gave you so much confidence, and he had a fantastic racing brain in those long distance events."

The continuing success led to Walkinshaw's election as chairman of the British Racing Drivers' Club, but that ended in 1992 when his radical diversification plan for the formation of Silverstone Motor Group was heavily criticised by the membership. He had also been appointed engineering director at Benetton's F1 team, however. He was instrumental in luring Michael Schumacher away from Jordan to Benetton, after the German's debut at Spa in 1991, and by 1994 Walkinshaw's engineering ministrations had helped the team to become a title contender as he brought together the design talents Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne.

That dark season Schumacher won the world championship, but such was the fragility of Walkinshaw's relationship with (the since disgraced) team boss Flavio Briatore that he carried the can for controversies which centred around allegations that they were running illegal traction control, and the fall-out of a pit-lane fire at Hockenheim which was said to have been caused when a "junior employee" sped up refuelling stops by removing a crucial fuel filter. Walkinshaw took a 50 per cent stake in Briatore's Ligier team for 1995, but acquired a controlling interest in Arrows for 1996, as TWR began a touring car programme with Volvo and a TWR-designed Porsche sportscar won Le Mans.

In 1997 Damon Hill came within a lap of winning the Hungarian GP in a Bridgestone-shod Arrows-Yamaha, before throttle problems dropped him to second place. The team struggled thereafter, and foundered just before the British GP in 2002, taking TWR down with it amid a mountain of debt.

While acknowledging the hardships generated by the latter, one former employer said this week: "Few people think that where they are now is as interesting and involving a place to work as TWR. The enthusiasm and empowerment there made it a fantastic place."

What gets forgotten is that a Red Bull rescue was on the table. Dietrich Mateschitz – who had split his sponsorship between Sauber and Arrows after Peter Sauber opted for Kimi Raikkonen rather than his protégé Enrique Bernoldi, and the Brazilian was slotted into Arrows – was prepared to buy the team for $30m. But the judge who heard the case against TWR memorably knew nothing of the energy drink and refused to believe it could be a credible saviour. But for that, it's not fanciful to suggest that Walkinshaw might have lived to see "his" team winning the 2010 FIA Formula One World Championships for Drivers and Constructors...

TWR had also been enormously successful in Australia, building its business racing Holden road cars. After the TWR collapse Walkinshaw refocussed Down Under, where his teams won the Australian V8 Supercar Series six times, and no fewer than six victories in the famed Bathurst 1000. He also bought the Gloucester rugby union team, in 1997, and until 2002 was chairman of the clubs' body.

My own professional involvement with him deepened in the early Nineties when TWR developed a supercharged Jaguar engine for a project I was running to challenge the British water speed record. His critics claimed that he was close with money, and that it was usually somebody else's. But my experience was that he made the engine for nothing, because he was genuinely interested in the programme.

After an F1 press conference in Brazil one year I checked yet again with him that there wasn't going to be a £30,000 bill down the line that I wouldn't be able to pay. He took hold of the front of my shirt and said with a smile: "DT, I told you there will be no cost to you..." Sadly, the project never came to fruition.

Invariably amusing company with a stack of anecdotes, Walkinshaw was nevertheless very private at his core, a tough but engaging character who always pushed the limits, in every area of his life. Therein lay the secret to his great success.

David Tremayne

Thomas Dobbie Walkinshaw, motor racing and rugby union team owner; born Penicuik, Midlothian 14 August 1946; married firstly Elizabeth (one son), secondly Martine (two sons); died Chipping Norton 12 December 2010.

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